Record storms and human-caused disasters stretch Presbyterian Disaster Assistance resources

Heavy snows, flooding, fires and shootings make 2015 a busy year in U.S. disaster response

December 21, 2015

Windham Presbyterian Church in New Hampshire is blanketed by last winter’s record snow.

Windham Presbyterian Church in New Hampshire is blanketed by last winter’s record snow. —Lavina Miller

LOUISVILLE

Over the years, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has responded to massive weather events like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy or major earthquakes and tsunamis in other countries. But 2015 brought a new set of challenges to PDA staff and volunteers.

“What we’ve had this year has been an extraordinary number of what I call cascading events. They start small and then just keep coming on in intensity,” said the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, PDA coordinator.

Kraus refers to the record rainfalls and accompanying flooding that occurred in Texas in spring and fall, as well as South Carolina. Fires throughout the west displaced thousands of people and put entire communities at risk. In addition, winter weather in the northeast caused major problems. And now, heavy rains have caused landslides and road closures in the Pacific Northwest. 

“There were a few dramatic snowfalls that built up in a cascading nature with record snowfall, and then another one, and another one,” she said. “Small congregations in the northeast were overwhelmed; reporting that they had damage, as well as not enough money in the budget to pay for continuing snow removal. Many people were unable to work because of the weather and lost income, which, coupled with many weeks of cancelled church services, impacted offering receipts. In some cases, pastors or staff could not be paid. The snow event unfolded over a month or more.”

Kraus says PDA had to make some extraordinary arrangements because the impact on small, immigrant congregations was huge in the snow-impacted areas.

“Church support is not our primary purpose, but it was really necessary for the stabilization of some presbyteries in the Synod of the Northeast,” she said. “We issued an appeal for funds to support the response, but it was a cascading event, happening slowly over an extended time period. By the time we were able to conduct an assessment of the damage, it was out of the news. So the ability to raise funds was impacted by timing.”

The spring rains and flooding in Texas kept PDA staff and volunteers busy throughout the summer.

“Texas is such a large state and there were a lot of smaller storms and flooding,” said Rick Turner, PDA associate for disaster response. “Even in a small state like South Carolina, there was no way to go in with one volunteer team and conduct all of the assessments we needed to make.”

Turner said response teams in Texas had just begun organizing training for pastors and volunteers to assist with the spring recovery, when the October storms and flooding hit adding “gas to the fire.”

“We had dozens of people deployed in south Texas for months and we had to appoint a National Response Team to oversee the entire state as if it was one event, even though the damage occurred in various presbyteries,” added Kraus. “Some of the presbyteries were involved with missional engagement with refugees and asylum seekers and then the flooding occurred.”

Kraus said the Texas presbyteries found themselves facing numerous challenges.

An aerial view taken from a Coast Guard helicopter showing the continuing effects of flooding caused by Hurricane Joaquin in the area of the Black River, in Sumpter County, S.C., Oct. 6, 2015.

An aerial view taken from a Coast Guard helicopter showing the continuing effects of flooding caused by Hurricane Joaquin in the area of the Black River, in Sumpter County, S.C., Oct. 6, 2015. —Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann

“There are presbyteries impacted by churches leaving the denomination, trying to continue to respond to the border crisis from 2014 and they’re wrestling with managing staff and funds while trying to meet needs and the emerging opportunities to serve,” she said.

While the flooding and snows have consumed time and resources, PDA has also responded to other disasters.

“We’ve had problems with wildfires this year. In parts of northern California, as many as 1,000 homes were destroyed in addition to the wildfires in Washington State and Oregon,” said Turner.

Human caused disasters have also kept PDA busy.

“There were the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, Oregon as well as other significant mass violence events that have strained resources,” added Kraus. “Food insecurity and violence in South Sudan is getting worse, the Syrian refugee crisis during the summer and fall months have had a huge impact and now, in the wake of the Paris terror attack, has intensified further. There are only so many times the church can issue direct appeals, and with disaster layering upon disaster, it is difficult for any of us, however generous, to respond adequately to all of the needs. Still, we are deeply grateful for the continuing faithful support of Presbyterians to disaster response—the suffering of many has been mitigated by our joined efforts.”

Both Kraus and Turner say it is hard to predict how many volunteers will be needed during the course of a year. By the end of January, they expect to have as many as 105 active members of the National Response Team. But depending on the disaster, they could use twice that number.

PDA will host discernment in January where those interested in possibly volunteering in disaster situations, will undergo a series of conversations and exercises to determine their ability and willingness to serve. 

-----

For more information on the work of PDA, click here.